Toshiya Kamei is a fiction writer working in English and Spanish. His short fiction has appeared in venues such as New World Writing, Revista Korad, and SmokeLong en Español.
Biting her nails, Marina stood at the bedroom window and watched a moving truck pull up next door. A silver SUV slid in behind it and a family got out—a middle-aged female couple and a daughter her age. The shorter woman directed movers as they hauled boxes and furniture through the front door. Away from the bustling clamor of the workers, the taller woman busied herself setting up the patio—table, chairs, and barbecue grill. A small dog squirted out of the girl’s arms and scuttled in an empty pool in the yard.
“Harry!” the girl called out and ran after the dog, her curly hair bobbing up and down. When she scooped him into her arms, he poked his muzzle into her face. The girl looked up, and her gaze met Marina’s. To her mild surprise, the girl walked toward her. Marina flushed and looked away. It had been a long while since anyone had last talked to her. Her heart pounded in her ears and her palms felt sweaty.
The room suddenly felt too warm and stuffy. Craving fresh air, Marina opened the window a crack. As a soft breeze caressed her skin, the hairs on her arms and neck stood up.
“Cute dog,” Marina said when the girl came within earshot.
“Thanks. Do you want to pet him?” The girl turned to her dog, saying, “Don’t be shy, Harry. I want you to meet our neighbor.” She lifted him to eye level.
Marina hesitated for a moment and then stuck her hand through the half-open window, petting his head.
“My name’s Kara.” She smiled at Marina, her white teeth flashing against her brown skin. “This is Harry.” A breeze lifted a stray strand of hair and pressed against her cheek. She brushed it away.
“We’re having a cookout.” Kara turned, pointing to her mother standing over at the barbecue grill on the patio. The woman raised silver tongs and waved them at her daughter. “Why don’t you join us? It’s nice out here.”
“Thanks, but I’m not supposed to go outside.” Marina frowned. The glass window seemed like prison bars. For a brief moment, she imagined herself as a princess trapped in an ivory tower.
“I’m not well.” Marina’s eyes clouded. Revealing her condition might give rise to myriad problems. Kara seemed nice enough, but how much could she trust her? What could she tell her? If Kara knew the truth, would she still want to make friends with her?
“Not well enough to go out?”
Marina nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Are you sick?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Marina stared down at her nails.
“Okay. I won’t push if you don’t feel like it. No pressure.” Kara smiled.
“Where are you from?” Kara asked.
“I’ve been here all my life.”
“Where are you really from?”
“I’m from here,” Marina said, a bit annoyed.
“Where is your family from?”
“My family is originally from Japan.”
The prospect of making friends unnerved her and excited her at the same time. When was the last time she had a friend? She couldn’t even remember. She had long ago abandoned any hope of leading a normal life.
“Marina.” Her mother’s voice came from outside the door, breaking her reverie. “Who are you talking to?”
“Nobody, Mom,” Marina answered before turning to Kara. She knew her mother wanted what was best for her, but she felt suffocated and trapped. Marina was tired of living under her watchful eye. She wanted to be free. “Sorry, I have to go.”
“I’ll call you when we put water in the pool.”
“Okay,” Marina said.
They quickly exchanged numbers and email addresses and said their goodbyes. The smoky smell of barbecue wafted toward Marina, making her swallow her saliva.
That night, Marina turned off the lights and slipped into bed. She closed her eyes and drifted into sleep. There was something different about her dream. As usual, she found herself swimming in clear water. But she wasn’t alone this time. She saw a girl struggling against the current, gasping for breath. The water rushed toward her, yanking her toward the swirling vortex. Swishing her tail, Marina swam toward the girl. She extended her hand out, but the girl remained out of her reach.
Marina woke to her phone buzzing on the night table. Her heart raced as she opened the message.
Are you still awake? It was from Kara. With the phone in her hand, Marina rolled over and buried her face into the crumpled sheets.
Yup, Marina replied, drowsy. Do you know what time it is? She typed, stifling a yawn. Can’t you sleep?
I don’t sleep much.
Even on school days?
Oh. Maybe you should.
Maybe. So you don’t go to school?
No. But I’m taking online courses. I’m one semester short of graduation.
Great. Me, too.
How will you celebrate your graduation?
I don’t know.
Oh, c’mon. Bubbles appeared on the screen, indicating Kara was typing. I’ll tell you what. Let’s celebrate together.
Let me do the planning.
Okay. Good night.
Marina put the phone back on the night table. As she realized the girl in her dream was Kara, she blushed in the darkness.
One afternoon, Marina shot Kara a quick text, letting her know she was home alone.
I’ll be there, Kara replied. Nervous, Marina paced around her room. She’d never done something like this. Her conscience pricked her. She didn’t like doing things behind her mother’s back.
After a few minutes, the doorbell rang. Marina ran to the door and saw Kara standing through the camera. She opened the door, invited Kara in, and closed the door quickly.
“Mom went to see the dentist. She’ll be back in an hour,” Marina said as she led Kara into her room. “Sorry about the mess,” she said, picking up books and clothes off the floor.
“Don’t worry about it,” Kara said, looking around the room.
“It’s not like I have visitors every day.” Marina smiled shyly, feeling her cheeks flush.
“What were you studying?” Kara pointed her chin toward a world map spread across the coverlet. “Geology?”
The map gave Marina a sliver of hope that she could discover a better future. Even so, she wondered if she had a right to hope like everyone else.
“I was wondering where Atlantis was,” Marina said.
“They sank Atlantis because they hated the merfolk so much.”
“Do you think so?”
“Yes. They can be so hateful.”
“Funny,” Kara said, “I’ve never thought of it that way.”
“Humans have wiped out so many species.”
They sat on the edge of the bed. In silence, they stared at the outline of continents and oceans.
An orange goldfish swam in long, slow circles around a bowl on top of the desk. An occasional splash broke the silence in the room.
“May I feed it?” Kara asked, taking a step toward the desk.
“Sure, go ahead.”
Kara took a pinch of fish food and sprinkled it into the bowl, causing the goldfish to rise to the surface.
“Sometimes I wish I were a fish,” Marina said.
“I want to go to the beach.” Marina sighed with a forlorn look in her eyes. “Oh, the irony of my name.”
“Don’t worry. You will someday,” Kara said, squeezing Marina’s arm.
Marina’s chest tightened, and before long she was breathing hard. Sweat dripped from her forehead as she struggled to keep control of herself. A flicker of panic ran through her as she felt her body shake. Perhaps a normal life was too much to ask for. Her muscles twitched and jerked. Her face turned pale.
“Marina, are you all right?” Kara grabbed Marina’s shoulders to steady her.
“Excuse me. I’m not feeling well.” Marina regained her senses and quickly got up. She dashed toward the bathroom. Once inside, she ripped her clothes off. A sharp pain shot through her lower body, taking her breath with it. As her legs shriveled up, she fell to the bathroom floor, turned on the tap full blast, and crawled into the bathtub. The murmur of running water lulled her.
“Marina?” Marina heard Kara’s voice outside the door.
“Don’t come in, Kara. I’m a mess,” Marina said, panicked, but it was too late. The doorknob turned as Kara came inside. Marina glanced up through teary vision.
“Oh my goodness. What happened?” Kara covered her mouth to stifle a gasp.
Marina’s body below her navel had withered and become a fishtail.
“Are you in pain?” Kara asked, concerned.
Marina shook her head. “Now you know my secret.”
“I won’t tell a soul.” Kara clamped her lips together and locked them with an invisible key.
“Thank you.” Marina shook her hair loose, long curls cascading over her shoulders.
“You must be a good swimmer.” Kara sat on the edge of the bathtub. She stared at Marina’s scaly tail as it glittered and sparkled.
“I don’t know.” Marina shrugged. “I’ve never been in a pool, let alone the ocean.”
“It’s gotta change.” Kara wrinkled her nose. “I’ve never understood why shapeshifting is punishable by death.”
“I can hardly believe my eyes,” Kara said, shifting her weight. “Forgive me for staring. For what it’s worth, I think you’re pretty.”
“Do you mean it?” Marina felt her cheeks flush.
“Yeah. Growing up, The Little Mermaid was my favorite story.”
“No kidding. I imagined myself as the mermaid falling in love with a human princess.”
Kara smiled. “Are you seeing someone?”
“Sadly, no. I would freak them out.”
“You don’t freak me out, though,” Kara said, staring at Marina.
“Really?” Marina could hardly believe her ears. Was Kara flirting with her? Her heart was thumping so hard she worried Kara could hear it. “The trouble is,” she began, “I never know when I’ll turn into a mermaid.”
“Darn. That’s inconvenient,” Kara said. “Have you heard of sanctuary cities?”
“Yes. I’ve read about them online: they shelter folks like me. But they’re not on any map.”
“That doesn’t mean they aren’t real. My cousin Ben lives in one. He says many people like you live there, and no one bothers them.”
“They really exist.” Marina’s voice tinged with hope.
“I’ll tell you what. We’ll visit there, after we graduate.”
“Do you mean it?” Marina’s eyes brightened.
“Sure. We’ll take a road trip. You, me, and Harry. My moms are going to pick out a car for me as a graduation gift.”
Marina splashed water at Kara with her tail. Kara cried and splashed her back. Marina hugged her and pulled her into the bathtub.
“Marina! Oh, I’ll get you for this!” They both giggled.
Kara turned to Marina, her smile inviting her to join her. Shedding her clothes, Marina dipped herself up to her neck, the cool water soothing her skin. A burst of energy and joy surged through her. She barely managed to hold back the scream that almost escaped her throat. Her instincts took over, telling her what to do. She flailed and kicked toward Kara.
The following night, Marina’s phone rang. The ringtone told her it was Kara calling.
“I’m outside,” Kara said.
“Okay. See you in a bit.” Marina’s pulse quickened with anticipation.
Making sure her mother was asleep, Marina stepped out into the night air and felt the chill hit against her face.
“Here you are.” Marina heard Kara’s voice and felt her hand on her arm. “Let’s go. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Kara walked up behind Marina and playfully placed her hands over her eyes. “No peeking. Come with me.”
Unable to see, Marina teetered, but Kara guided her.
“I understand why your mother is so protective,” Kara said. “But you can’t live in fear. That’s no way to live.”
Kara removed her hands from her face, and Marina blinked and saw the pool illuminated by soft pool lights. She gasped and covered her mouth. Her vision blurred. Hot tears swelled in her eyes, and she sniffed hard to keep them at bay.
“I hope you like it,” Kara said. Through her watery vision, Marina saw her smile, and all she could do was nod. How long had she wanted to swim? How long had she wanted to feel cool water engulf her body?
“Thank you,” she finally said. “You have no idea how much this means to…” Her voice trailed off.
“You’re very welcome.” Kara grinned and removed her shirt and shorts before diving into the water with a splash. When she emerged, haloed by the moonlight, Marina was sure she’d never seen anything so beautiful.
Kara turned to Marina, her smile inviting her to join her. Shedding her clothes, Marina dipped herself up to her neck, the cool water soothing her skin. A burst of energy and joy surged through her. She barely managed to hold back the scream that almost escaped her throat. Her instincts took over, telling her what to do. She flailed and kicked toward Kara. Moonbeams danced on the tiny ripples made on the water surface by her movements.
“I figured you’d know how to swim.” Kara floated vertically, gasping for breath. “But look at you. You swim like a dolphin.” She beamed and splashed water at Marina. “Is it fun?”
Marina nodded and smiled back.
“How come you haven’t turned into a mermaid yet?” Kara asked.
“How should I know?” Marina shrugged. “Nothing in my life makes sense.” She flashed a wry smile. She looked up and met Kara’s eyes. On impulse, she reached out and brushed Kara’s cheek with her fingertips. Electricity sparked between them, making her gasp.
“Does this make sense?” Kara drew Marina closer and kissed her, tentatively at first, before the kiss deepened.
Marina saw the moonlight flicker across Kara’s cheeks. Marina wrapped her arms around Kara’s neck and rested her face against her chest.